Washington, D.C. October 17, 1941

Starting on September 1, 1941, two years into the Battle of the Atlantic, U.S. war­ships began es­corting con­voys of Britain-bound mer­chant­men from the North Amer­i­can coast. Con­voys departed from New­found­land off the coast of Canada and ended in the mid-Atlan­tic at Ice­land, a Danish posses­sion whose defense the U.S. had assumed on July 7, 1941. Four days after ini­ti­ating the escort ser­vice, the U.S. destroyer Greer, bound for Ice­land with a load of mail, was attached by a Ger­man sub­marine 175 miles south­west of that island and, in responding to the attack, damaged it. The “Greer incident” led Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt to issue what became known as his “shoot-on-sight” order. “From now on,” the president warned America’s Axis adversaries, “if German or Italian vessels of war enter the waters, the protection of which is necessary for American defense, they do so at their own peril.”

On this date, October 17, 1941, off the south­west coast of Iceland again, the Battle of the Atlan­tic escalated when a German U‑boat tor­pe­doed the U.S. destroyer Kearny as it came to the rescue of a Cana­dian-escorted convoy. Eleven U.S. crew­men were killed and twenty-two wounded. A Brit­ish de­stroyer was also sunk in the same attack. The attacker, U‑568, was a part of a wolf pack that had been harassing British and Cana­dian trans­atlantic con­voys for some time. The USS Kearny, which had been launched only the year before, was the second U.S. Navy ship since World War I to be fired on and hit. (The U.S. river gun­boat USS Panay, which served to pro­tect Amer­i­can interests on the Yangtze River in China, was sunk off the Chi­nese capi­tal of Nan­king (Nanjing) by Japa­nese air­craft in mid-Decem­ber 1937 and may be con­sidered the first U.S. naval casualty of World War II.)

Ten days after the Kearny attack, FDR told Amer­i­cans that the coun­try would not take the in­ci­dent “lying down.” “Amer­ica has been attacked,” the presi­dent said, but he didn’t seek an imme­di­ate declara­tion of war; instead, he asked Con­gress for autho­ri­za­tion to arm Amer­i­can mer­chant ves­sels and allow them to enter com­bat zones, meas­ures for­bidden by U.S. Neu­trality Acts that the U.S. Con­gress had passed in 1937–1939. In early Novem­ber, after the old four-stacker USS Reuben James was tor­pe­doed off Ice­land on Octo­ber 31, 1941, sinking in minutes with a loss of 115 lives, including all of its offi­cers, Con­gress com­plied with the presi­dent’s request. The U.S. and Germany were now involved in an unof­ficial war at sea. And that’s where things stood between the two powers until Decem­ber 11, 1941, when Germany declared war on the United States as a gesture of solidarity with its Axis-treaty partner Japan.

The U.S. Navy on the Eve of War with Germany, 1941

USS Kearny, November 1941USS Reuben James, 1939

Right: USS Kearny at Reykjavík, Iceland, two days after she had been torpe­doed by U‑568. The USS Monssen is along­side. Though hard to see in this photo­graph, the tor­pedo hole is in the Kearny’s star­board side. The Kearny, assisting three other U.S. de­stroyers, came to the rescue of a belea­guered con­voy whose Cana­dian escorts were being mauled by a U‑boat wolf pack when it came under attack. Casual­ties among Kearny’s crew included 11 dead and 22 injured. In FDR’s Navy Day speech on Octo­ber 27, 1941, the former Under­sec­re­tary of the Navy and now presi­dent announced, “The shooting has started and we Americans have taken our battle stations.”

Left: The USS Reuben James—a four-funnel, post-World War I destroyer—was sunk by U‑552 west of Iceland as she escorted an east­bound con­voy sailing from New­found­land. A tor­pedo hit the for­ward section of the Reuben James. When a maga­zine exploded it blew off the ship’s entire bow, which sank imme­di­ately; the aft section sank five minutes later. Of the 159-man crew, only 44 sur­vived. Counting the con­flict in China, the Reuben James was the second U.S. Navy ship sunk by hos­tile action in World War II. The river gun­boat USS Panay, serving on the Yangtze Patrol in China, was bombed, strafed, and sunk by Japa­nese air­craft on Decem­ber 12, 1937, with a loss of 4 dead and 43 sailors and 5 civilians wounded.

Battle of the Atlantic, 1939–1945